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Songs of Townes Van Zandt

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You have to wonder how the immortal spirit of legendary troubled troubadour Townes Van Zandt feels about his oeuvre's increasing popularity among metalheads, as exemplified by 2012's Songs of Townes Van Zandt, featuring a three-headed monster of underground metal heavies in Scott Kelly (of Neurosis), Steve Von Till (ditto), and Scott "Wino" Weinrich (of Saint Vitus, Spirit Caravan, etc.). Chances are Townes, wherever he is, feels merely bemused, having bigger discorporal fish to fry right about now. But there's no doubt it's always taken a special kind of manic depressive to appreciate the darker nuances of Van Zandt's country-folk masterpieces, so perhaps the connection isn't as tenuous as one might initially think. In any case, with three separate interpreters on hand here covering three songs each, perhaps its better to analyze them individually as people, beginning with Von Till, who tackles his subjects with a deeply morose almost somnambulant solemnity. His resounding baritone lends some life to the spare acoustic guitars used on "If I Needed You" and "Black Crow Blues," but it takes some clever electronics to elevate "The Snake Song" to a truly interesting new place. Von Till's Neurosis bandmate, Scott Kelly, takes a little more creative liberty with his choices, freeing "St. John the Gambler" of its accompanying orchestrations and its titular chorus (!) and infecting "Lungs" with muscular electric guitar drones, before intriguingly channeling Roger Waters for his brute acoustic run through "Tecumseh Valley." But perhaps the biggest surprise is reserved for Wino — not because he veers from the predominant folk guitar approach on display, but because his rugged contralto sounds so naked and pure (though as assertive as ever, unlike his more timid colleagues) as he embodies the bright-eyed, impetuous subject of "Rake," accepts the inconclusive resignation of "A Song For," and then scrapes his way through the incomparably bleak "Nothin'" — a song that could teach the most misanthropic black metal terrorist something about abject nihilism. In sum: all three of these artists struggle with the pressure of doing Townes' imposing canon justice (and who wouldn't?), but while they may come across a tad too cautiously to impress experienced Van Zandt scholars, they are bound to lure even more hard rock and metal fans to discover the great man's singularly beautiful and haunting body of work — mission accomplished.

Songs of Townes Van Zandt, Scott Kelly
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